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Matter and Memory

Matter and Memory

by Henri Bergson

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A monumental work by an important modern philosopher, Matter and Memory (1896) represents one of the great inquiries into perception and memory, movement and time, matter and mind. Nobel Prize-winner Henri Bergson surveys these independent but related spheres, exploring the connection of mind and body to individual freedom of choice. Bergson's efforts to reconcile the


A monumental work by an important modern philosopher, Matter and Memory (1896) represents one of the great inquiries into perception and memory, movement and time, matter and mind. Nobel Prize-winner Henri Bergson surveys these independent but related spheres, exploring the connection of mind and body to individual freedom of choice. Bergson's efforts to reconcile the facts of biology to a theory of consciousness offered a challenge to the mechanistic view of nature, and his philosophy can be regarded as a forerunner to later developments in relativity theory and conceptions of mental process. His original and innovative views exercised a profound influence on other philosophers -- including James, Whitehead, and Santayana -- as well as novelists such as Dos Passos and Proust. Essential to an understanding of Bergson's philosophy and its legacy, Matter and Memory is among Dover's Philosophical Classics. A collection of the major works in Western and Eastern philosophy, this new series ranges from ancient Greece to modern times. Its low-priced, high-quality, unabridged editions are ideal for teachers and students as well as for other readers.

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Solis Press
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6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.35(d)
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Matter and Memory

By Henri Bergson, Nancy Margaret Paul, W. Scott Palmer

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11734-8



WE will assume for the moment that we know nothing of theories of matter and theories of spirit, nothing of the discussions as to the reality or ideality of the external world. Here I am in the presence of images, in the vaguest sense of the word, images perceived when my senses are opened to them, unperceived when they are closed. All these images act and react upon one another in all their elementary parts according to constant laws which I call laws of nature, and, as a perfect knowledge of these laws would probably allow us to calculate and to foresee what will happen in each of these images, the future of the images must be contained in their present and will add to them nothing new.

The unique place and function of the living body.

Yet there is one of them which is distinct from all the others, in that I do not know it only from without by perceptions, but from within by affections: it is my body. I examine the conditions in which these affections are produced: I find that they always interpose themselves between the excitations that I receive from without and the movements which I am about to execute, as though they had some undefined influence on the final issue. I pass in review my different affections: it seems to me that each of them contains, after its kind, an invitation to act, with at the same time leave to wait and even to do nothing. I look closer: I find movements begun, but not executed, the indication of a more or less useful decision, but not that constraint which precludes choice. I call up, I compare my recollections: I remember that everywhere, in the organic world, I have thought I saw this same sensibility appear at the very moment when nature, having conferred upon the living being the power of mobility in space, gives warning to the species, by means of sensation, of the general dangers which threaten it, leaving to the individuals the precautions necessary for escaping from them. Lastly, I interrogate my consciousness as to the part which it plays in affection: consciousness replies that it is present indeed, in the form of feeling or of sensation, at all the steps in which I believe that I take the initiative, and that it fades and disappears as soon as my activity, by becoming automatic, shows that consciousness is no longer needed. Therefore, either all these appearances are deceptive, or the act in which the affective state issues is not one of those which might be rigorously deduced from antecedent phenomena, as a movement from a movement; and hence it really adds something new to the universe and to its history. Let us hold to the appearances; I will formulate purely and simply what I feel and what I see: All seems to take place as if, in this aggregate of images which I call the universe, nothing really new could happen except through the medium of certain particular images, the type of which is furnished me by my body.

I pass now to the study, in bodies similar to my own, of the structure of that particular image which I call my body. I perceive afferent nerves which transmit a disturbance to the nerve centres, then efferent nerves which start from the centre, conduct the disturbance to the periphery, and set in motion parts of the body or the body as a whole. I question the physiologist and the psychologist as to the purpose of both kinds. They answer that as the centrifugal movements of the nervous system can call forth a movement of the body or of parts of the body, so the centripetal movements, or at least some of them, give birth to the representation of the external world. What are we to think of this?

Yet the brain is only an image among other images.

The afferent nerves are images, the brain is an image, the disturbance travelling through the sensory nerves and propagated in the brain is an image too. If the image which I term cerebral disturbance really begot external images, it would contain them in one way or another, and the representation of the whole material universe would be implied in that of this molecular movement. Now to state this proposition is enough to show its absurdity. The brain is part of the material world; the material world is not part of the brain. Eliminate the image which bears the name material world, and you destroy at the same time the brain and the cerebral disturbance which are parts of it. Suppose, on the contrary, that these two images, the brain and the cerebral disturbance, vanish: ex hypothesi you efface only these, that is to say very little, an insignificant detail from an immense picture. The picture in its totality, that is to say the whole universe, remains. To make of the brain the condition on which the whole image depends is in truth a contradiction in terms, since the brain is by hypothesis a part of this image. Neither nerves nor nerve centres can, then, condition the image of the universe.

The body is a centre of action; it receives and returns movements.

Let us consider this last point. Here are external images, then my body, and, lastly, the changes brought about by my body in the surrounding images. I see plainly how external images influence the image that I call my body: they transmit movement to it. And I also see how this body influences external images: it gives back movement to them. My body is, then, in the aggregate of the material world, an image which acts like other images, receiving and giving back movement, with, perhaps, this difference only, that my body appears to choose, within certain limits, the manner in which it shall restore what it receives. But how could my body in general, and my nervous system in particular, beget the whole or a part of my representation of the universe? You may say that my body is matter, or that it is an image: the word is of no importance. If it is matter, it is a part of the material world; and the material world, consequently, exists around it and without it. If it is an image, that image can give but what has been put into it, and since it is, by hypothesis, the image of my body only, it would be absurd to expect to get from it that of the whole universe. My body, an object destined to move other objects, is, then, a centre of action; it cannot give birth to a representation.

So the body is but a privileged image, providing for the exercise of choice among possible reactions.

But if my body is an object capable of exercising a genuine and therefore a new action upon the surrounding objects, it must occupy a privileged position in regard to them. As a rule, any image influences other images in a manner which is determined, and even calculable, through what are called the laws of nature. As it has not to choose, so neither has it any need to explore the region round about it, nor to try its hand at several merely eventual actions. The necessary action will take place automatically, when its hour strikes. But I have supposed that the office of the image which I call my body was to exercise on other images a real influence, and, consequently, to decide which step to take among several which are all materially possible. And since these steps are probably suggested to it by the greater or less advantage which it can derive from the surrounding images, these images must display in some way, upon the aspect which they present to my body, the profit which my body can gain from them. In fact, I note that the size, shape, even the colour, of external objects is modified according as my body approaches or recedes from them; that the strength of an odour, the intensity of a sound, increases or diminishes with distance; finally, that this very distance represents, above all, the measure in which surrounding bodies are insured, in some sort, against the immediate action of my body. In the degree that my horizon widens, the images which surround me seem to be painted upon a more uniform background and become to me more indifferent. The more I narrow this horizon, the more the objects which it circumscribes space themselves out distinctly according to the greater or less ease with which my body can touch and move them. They send back, then, to my body, as would a mirror, its eventual influence; they take rank in an order corresponding to the growing or decreasing powers of my body. The objects which surround my body reflect its possible action upon them.

Perceptions point to these possible reactions.

I will now, without touching the other images, modify slightly that image which I call my body. In this image I cut asunder, in thought, all the afferent nerves of the cerebrospinal system. What will happen? A few cuts with the scalpel have severed a few bundles of fibres: the rest of the universe, and even the rest of my body, remain what they were before. The change effected is therefore insignificant. As a matter of fact, my perception has entirely vanished. Let us consider more closely what has just occurred. Here are the images which compose the universe in general, then those which are near to my body, and finally my body itself. In this last image the habitual office of the centripetal nerves is to transmit movements to the brain and to the cord; the centrifugal nerves send back this movement to the periphery. Section of the centripetal nerves can therefore produce only one intelligible effect: that is, to interrupt the current which goes from the periphery to the periphery by way of the centre, and, consequently, to make it impossible for my body to extract, from among all the things which surround it, the quantity and quality of movement necessary in order to act upon them. Here is something which concerns action, and action alone. Yet it is my perception which has vanished. What does this mean, if not that my perception displays, in the midst of the image world, as would their outward reflexion or shadow, the eventual or possible actions of my body? Now the system of images in which the scalpel has effected only an insignificant change is what is generally called the material world; and, on the other hand, that which has just vanished is 'my perception' of matter. Whence, provisionally, these two definitions: I call matter the aggregate of images, and perception of matter these same images referred to the eventual action of one particular image, my body.

The brain is concerned with motor reaction, not with conscious perception.

Let us go more deeply into this reference. I consider my body, with its centripetal and cen trifugal nerves, with its nerve centres. I know that external objects make in the afferent nerves a disturbance which passes onward to the centres, that the centres are the theatre of very varied molecular movements, and that these movements depend on the nature and position of the objects. Change the objects, or modify their relation to my body, and everything is changed in the interior movements of my perceptive centres. But everything is also changed in 'my perception.' My perception is, then, a function of these molecular movements; it depends upon them. But how does it depend upon them? It will perhaps be said that it translates them, and that, in the main, I represent to myself nothing but the molecular movements of cerebral substance. But how should this have any meaning, since the image of the nervous system and of its internal movements is only, by hypothesis, that of a certain material object, whereas I represent to myself the whole material universe? It is true that many philosophers attempt to evade the difficulty. They show us a brain, analogous in its essence to the rest of the material universe, an image, consequently, if the universe is an image. Then, since they want the internal movements of this brain to create or determine the representation of the whole material world—an image infinitely greater than that of the cerebral vibrations—they maintain that these molecular movements, and movement in general, are not images like others, but something which is either more or less than an image—in any case is of another nature than an image—and from which representation will issue as by miracle. Thus matter is made into something radically different from representation, something of which, consequently, we have no image; over against it they place a consciousness empty of images, of which we are unable to form any idea; lastly, to fill consciousness, they invent an incomprehensible action of this formless matter upon this matterless thought. But the truth is that the movements of matter are very clear, regarded as images, and that there is no need to look in movement for anything more than what we see in it. The sole difficulty would consist in bringing forth from these very particular images the infinite variety of representations; but why seek to do so, since we all agree that the cerebral vibrations are contained in the material world, and that these images, consequently, are only a part of the representation?—What then are these movements, and what part do these particular images play in the representation of the whole? The answer is obvious: they are, within my body, the movements intended to prepare, while beginning it, the reaction of my body to the action of external objects. Images themselves, they cannot create images; but they indicate at each moment, like a compass that is being moved about, the position of a certain given image, my body, in relation to the surrounding images. In the totality of representation they are very little; but they are of capital importance for that part of representation which I call my body, since they foreshadow at each successive moment its virtual acts. There is then only a difference of degree—there can be no difference in kind—between what is called the perceptive faculty of the brain and the reflex functions of the spinal cord. The cord transforms into movements the stimulation received; the brain prolongs it into reactions which are merely nascent; but, in the one case as in the other, the function of the nerve substance is to conduct, to coordinate or to inhibit movements. How then does it come about that 'my perception of the universe' appears to depend upon the internal movements of the cerebral substance, to change when they vary, and to vanish when they cease?

The difficulty of this problem is mainly due to the fact that the grey matter and its modifications are regarded as things which are sufficient to themselves and might be isolated from the rest of the universe. Materialists and dualists are fundamentally agreed on this point. They consider certain molecular movements of the cerebral matter apart: then, some see in our conscious perception a phosphorescence which follows these movements and illuminates their track; for others, our perceptions succeed each other like an unwinding scroll in a consciousness which expresses continuously, in its own way, the molecular vibrations of the cortical substance: in the one case, as in the other, our perception is supposed to translate or to picture the states of our nervous system. But is it possible to conceive the nervous system as living apart from the organism which nourishes it, from the atmosphere in which the organism breathes, from the earth which that atmosphere envelopes, from the sun round which the earth revolves? More generally, does not the fiction of an isolated material object imply a kind of absurdity, since this object borrows its physical properties from the relations which it maintains with all others, and owes each of its determinations, and consequently its very existence, to the place which it occupies in the universe as a whole? Let us no longer say, then, that our perceptions depend simply upon the molecular movements of the cerebral mass. We must say rather that they vary with them, but that these movements themselves remain inseparably bound up with the rest of the material world. The question, then, is not only how our perceptions are connected with the modifications of the grey matter. The problem widens, and can also be put in much clearer terms.


Excerpted from Matter and Memory by Henri Bergson, Nancy Margaret Paul, W. Scott Palmer. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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"Matter and Memory was the diagnosis of a crisis in psychology. Movement, as physical reality in the external world, and the image, as psychic reality in consciousness, could no longer be opposed. The Bergsonian discovery of a movement-image, and more profoundly, of a time-image, still retains such richness today that it is not certain that all its consequences have been drawn." Gilles Deleuze

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